CHRISTCHURCH GIRL STEPS FORWARD TO SAVE ENDANGERED HECTOR’S DOLPHINS

Fifteen year old Christchurch Avonside High School student Aescleah Hawkins has an unusual resolution for 2010 – this year, she has pledged to help stop the extinction of New Zealand’s endangered Hector’s dolphins. It’s an apt resolution for the new decade: the UN has declared 2010 the International Year of Biodiversity, officially launching in Berlin tomorrow (11 January 2010).

On 4, 5 and 6 March, Aescleah will walk the 42 kilometers from Lyttelton to Akaroa, aiming to raise vital funds for WWF’s Stop Their Extinction campaign, and spreading the message of the urgent need to protect Hector’s dolphins. She plans to bring together a team of 12 walkers, including herself, aiming to raise $36,000 for WWF’s conservation of the species.

“We are walking to Akaroa because that’s one of the places where Hector’s dolphins live. I hope that we can raise people’s awareness that the dolphins are now endangered, and we need to save them,” explains Aescleah. “Hector’s dolphins are just amazing, wonderful animals and we can’t let them go extinct. I want to see change come about, from our walk,” she concludes.

Hector’s dolphins need significant change if they are to survive. The species, which lives only in the coastal waters of New Zealand’s South Island, has lost nearly three quarters of it numbers since the 1970s, from 29,000 to an estimated 7,270 today. Hector’s are classified as one of the rarest marine dolphins in the world and ranked as ‘endangered’ on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. For these reasons, WWF-New Zealand ranks the survival of Hector’s dolphins a national conservation emergency.

When Aescleah found out about the plight of Hector’s dolphins, she immediately wanted to help: “I’d done a walk for wildlife in the UK for WWF, and really enjoyed it, so I wanted to do something here in New Zealand for local wildlife. I contacted WWF-New Zealand, found out about Hector’s dolphins being endangered and it was like – this is something I have to get involved in.”

When Aescleah talked about the idea of a sponsored walk with her family and WWF, the idea of making a symbolic journey from Christchurch to Akaroa emerged, and Aescleah’s initial interest quickly snowballed with friends, family and local tourism operators getting involved. Aescleah is hoping to bring together a team of 12 walkers including herself, with each walker pledging to raise $3000 each. Confirmed walkers so far are Aescleah’s mother, Sara-Jane Hawkins, three of Aeshleah’s friends, and Paul Bingham, Managing Director of Black Cat Cruises, and Aescleah aims to find another 6 walkers to take up the challenge. The walkers are being guided by Tuatara Tours, which is generously discounting its services at cost.

“Aescleah’s passion for Hector’s dolphins is just wonderful – it’s great to see how she’s getting everyone around her excited by the idea of doing something positive to help protect Hector’s dolphins,” comments WWF-New Zealand’s Executive Director Chris Howe.

“It will raise vital funds for WWF’s campaign to save Hector’s dolphins, and we’re very grateful for Aescleah and her team’s support in this respect. But the message that it sends is just as important in showing the Government that New Zealanders are passionate about our wildlife, and want Hector’s dolphins protected. The more people who give their support, the more powerful that message will be, so we’re encouraging everyone who wants to protect Hector’s dolphins to please support Aescleah’s Walk for Hector’s.
This is a national conservation issue that every New Zealander can get involved in solving, and we encourage people across the country to back Aescleah’s cause,” he said.

Though Aescleah only celebrated her fifteenth birthday in November 2009, she explains her decision walk for Hector’s as just down to her “lifelong commitment to wildlife”.

“I went out on a tour with the Black Cat Cruises and we saw four mothers and calves – it was just amazing,” says Aescleah.

“We’ve got involved to draw awareness to just how rare Hector’s dolphins now are,” comments Paul Bingham, Managing Director of Black Cat Cruises. “Black Cat only exists because of our partnership with the dolphins and the unique marine environment we operate in. We give people the opportunity to experience Hector’s dolphins, and we are committed to protecting the dolphins. When this opportunity came up to get involved in Aescleah’s walk for Hector’s, we got right behind it as another way of supporting our ongoing work to support the conservation of this endangered species.”